‘Getting up early to get there first is still the guiding principle in my life’
The Galway man is coy about naming clients – but he’s been a director of a number of what are now substantial firms as they’ve grown, including James Murphy’s Lifes2Good, which last year sold its Viviscal hair roster for €150m, as well as of the sports chain Elverys.
Sweeney and his long time legal partner Rory O’Donnell had merged their firms in the mid-1990s and went onto build up what is now a major legal firm.
Having done that, and stepped back from business in his 60s, setting up a practice again from scratch wasn’t Sweeney’s original plan.
“Between 2006 and 2008 I had stages two and three of melanoma and decided to change pace, become a consultant, but that wasn’t necessarily... it didn’t turn out to be a great idea because you were dragged back into the firm, or back into doing the same job, with the same pressures and everything,” he says.
“In the end I just decided it was more practical to develop a smaller law firm but focused purely on the private client and owner-managed segment.” Those Irish-owned, often family-controlled business had always been Sweeney’s own focus, he says.
The office is in Dublin’s leafy Ballsbridge, a stone’s throw from the RDS, where some of his clients will be up to see the horses this week. Is it a local clientele I ask – this being where a lot of Ireland’s wealth ends up? He chuckles at the suggestion. “It’s across the country. We’d have a lot of clients who have been with me for upwards of 40 years,” he says.
Over that time, Sweeney’s own base shifted, from a practice in Limerick city to Dublin in the late 1980s – later forming the partnership with O’Donnell and subsequently, London-based legal giant Eversheds.
The initial move from Limerick was to follow clients. A clutch of businesses from the region had expanded into the capital and found it becoming the greater part of their businesses.
Rather than see some of his best clients outgrow him, Sweeney expanded alongside them, staying with them in some cases as their business went national and international.
“When we opened the office in Dublin in 1987 we found technology was the huge driver,
“We had the first Wang OIS in a law practice in Ireland and a dedicated phone line between Limerick and Dublin, which gave us a great advantage.”
The practice subsequently built up scale through the merger to form O’Donnell-Sweeney.
“Rory’s practice was very similar, it was private client and owner-managed business focused,” he says.
The Eversheds connection was different, with the Irish business striking a franchise agreement, through personal connections between the parters.
“I had a great shooting friend – Cornelius Medvei – he was senior partner of Eversheds in London and this suggestion came about between us, that we might take a franchise, which I thought was a very good idea at the time and that’s where it developed from there.”
Is it awkward, I wonder, to service clients over a long period through a variety of entities? “It’s not awkward for them and it’s not awkward for me,” he says simply.
“I decided to go back into private practice, concentrating on private clients and owner-managed businesses because they have particular needs,” he says.
“At times they can be well serviced by the big law firms, but I do really believe that if private clients and owner-managed businesses have a good solicitor – a trusted lawyer and a trusted accountant – it can be very valuable.”
He has a particular focus on the critical junctures for a business – whether to buy or sell, and potentially most difficult of all, passing control through generations. For founding entrepreneurs, that mix of family and business dynamics creates big challenges, which Sweeney has seen play out many times through the years.
The reality can very tough at a human level.
“The skills of the entrepreneur may not pass to the next generations. The first question is to decide whether the family are capable of running the business.
“There are some families where some, but not all members, could continue the business and there are some families where no member can continue the business, and then it is wise to sell the business,” he says.
If passing a business from the founders to their own children is tough, successfully handing on a family business through succeeding generations is even trickier.
“It is a very rare family business that will go through two generations,” he says. If it does, that usually means it ends up going to one side of a family,” he says.
“I think the benefit of 40-odd years of practice is I have seen many businesses face those challenges.”
The other big challenge he sees clients facing over the past decade is finance – the ratcheting up of debt levels before the crash, and the subsequent scramble to get out from under it.
Even now, with the crash over and a recovery apparently in full swing, Sweeney thinks the banking system remains dysfunctional, and fears in particular the lack of dedicated, relationship-based, lenders to the commercial sector.
“We don’t have merchant banks, or industrial banks. We could badly do with an ICC (the former Industrial Credit Corporation) in business,” he says.
The main banks, he says have become too obsessed by security, having massively pulled away from business lending during the crash.
As someone whose focus is on businesses over the long-term, Sweeney doesn’t see the new class of lending funds as a credible alternative.
“The venture funds are geared to secured lending – they lend, but they cherry pick assets and lend against them. It would concern me because of the rates they are charging – anywhere between 8pc and 12pc interest rates on short-term loans. They are providing a much-needed service, but eventually they will have to be replaced by ordinary banking firms – and there is a huge shortage of ordinary banking,” he says.
Property, including dealing with the US private equity funds that have bought loans secured on it, remains a huge focus for domestic firms, he says.
“What you are finding is that a lot of businesses and individuals are buying back assets from the vulture funds, but with high-rate money.
“On the plus side they are getting the huge debt right down, if the assets are good quality you can turn them around and thus exit the expensive borrowings.”
While the debt costs remain high, that’s not producing business wealth, but its helping some firms recover from the aftermath of the financial crisis, he says.
More broadly, he sees the economy, and Dublin in particular, in recovery.
“It is certainly changed times. Property values have come back and it is making people feel much more secure in their homes and in their investments.”
Where does that leave his own firm? “At 67, I’m fortunate in having two younger partners and a young team and I’m enjoying watching the business grow. There’s ambition for the business. Growing up in Athenry, I learned an expression: ‘You’ve got to get up early to get there before the Loughrea lads’.
“This was in shooting terms but that principle has, and still does, guide my life.”
Between 2006 and 2008 I had stages two and three of melanoma and decided to change pace